Digital news publishers exhibit limited concern over X's reversal of the recent headline policy, given its minimal impact on driving traffic.
In the annals of digital history, Twitter has long held the reputation as a go-to platform for staying abreast of global events and updates. The iconic 'Blue Bird' platform underwent a seismic transformation in 2023, following its acquisition by Elon Musk.
Musk, known for his eccentric approach, took the helm last year and orchestrated a massive overhaul of the platform, redirecting the platform's narrative from simply reporting on 'What's new in the world' to a more introspective 'What's new with Twitter.'
While the narrative shift saw the platform’s departure from its traditional role as a passive observer of global happenings, it also saw the departure of headlines of news-based content on October 6, 2023.
In early October, Musk announced that tweets would stop showing headlines for links posted on the platform, now rechristened as ‘X’, in a bid to, “greatly improve the aesthetics”. But, for news publishers, the removal of the headline when inserting a link in a tweet eliminated the capacity to adequately contextualise their posts.
This action deprived them of the essential tool that headlines provide in offering immediate context and leading readers to engage. Tapan Sharma, EVP and head- digital business, Republic World, elaborates, "The absence of headlines on Twitter had an impact on traffic as it is causing a decline in user engagement. Users, accustomed to clicking on headlines for context, found it challenging to navigate content without this key element. Consequently, news publishers experienced a drop in traffic, highlighting the pivotal role headlines played in attracting and retaining user attention."
Users, accustomed to clicking on headlines for context, found it challenging to navigate content without this key element.Tapan Sharma, EVP and head- digital business, Republic World
The removal of headlines has created an impact on engagement on the platform for news publishers. However, the size of this impact is debatable and varies within the industry. Speaking unanimously, a digital business head of a prominent daily explains that social media's role in driving traffic to their platform has diminished over the years.
He likens the engagements that are driven on these platforms to resemble isolated islands. “These platforms, while fostering on-platform conversations, lack seamless transitions to external links, making it challenging for users to locate our content. While the removal of headlines on Twitter adversely affects user comprehension and, consequently, the overall user experience, the impact on our platform's traffic has been relatively insignificant due to the already limited engagement and traffic from Twitter."
According to data from Statista, the share of Twitter in India’s bustling social media market, with a user base of 470 million, in October 2023 stood at 1.53%. Thus, the limited impact on publishers stems from Twitter's smaller user base in the Indian digital space, resulting in relatively modest reach and influence compared to other platforms.
Turns out the departure of headlines wasn’t a permanent one, but rather short-lived. A little over a month after the initial announcement, on November 23, Musk tweeted that headlines would be returning to X. In a follow-up tweet, he said that the headlines would appear overlaid on the image of an article, not below it: “Every pixel matters,” he wrote.
Nidhi Mahajan, deputy business head, The Quint, opines that while the reinstatement of headlines on Twitter is beneficial for context and information dissemination, The Quint has never really considered Twitter a significant source to drive their website traffic. This is because the engagement primarily stays on the platform itself, not translating into meaningful traffic for them.
Bringing back headlines might improve contextualisation, but for smaller publishers, its impact remains uncertain.Nidhi Mahajan, deputy business head, The Quint
“Bringing back headlines might improve contextualisation, but for small publishers like us, its impact remains uncertain. Big tech platforms prioritise individual pages over news publishers, making it challenging for digital publishers to drive traffic from social media. Algorithms, often favouring influencers, don't necessarily correlate with volume, impacting traffic and contextualisation to a minor extent."
Did publishers change their Twitter operations?
The decision to eliminate article headlines has affected the way users share news content on the platform. This has led users to find posts often lacking in context unless the headline is explicitly mentioned in the text of the tweet or included in the image shared along.
It can be inferred that this shift would prompt publishers to relook at how information is presented and consumed on the platform, emphasising the importance of incorporating headline details within the tweet's content or accompanying visuals for a better user experience.
Sharma from Republic World explains that content teams did face the dual challenge of crafting compelling thumbnails and creating click-worthy copy while responding to the change.
“The need for concise yet intriguing visuals and copy has now become paramount. Reintroducing headlines on Twitter proves to be a welcomed solution, streamlining the user experience and benefiting both Twitter and news publishers by reviving engagement and maintaining the platform's credibility in news consumption."
The adjustment prompted us to be more meticulous with the strap we put out on Twitter.Wali Ahmad, associate editor (operations), Indian Express
On the contrary, Mukesh Singh, head, revenue- digital, Indian Express, reveals that the headline removal didn’t bring about an extensive operational change. Given the minuscule traffic, ranging from 5-10 percent of the total traffic that IE gets from social media, the absence of headlines hasn't significantly altered their dynamics of operation.
Adding to this, Wali Ahmad, associate editor (operations), Indian Express, says, “It took a couple of days for us to notice the change in headline positioning on the platform. However, it didn't result in a very significant shift in our operational approach. Previously, the headline pulled from the link sufficed to provide the story's context. The adjustment prompted us to be more meticulous with the strap we put out on Twitter, ensuring it carries the necessary context to avoid any potential misinformation. The traffic from Twitter hasn't seen a substantial change though. Whether the return of headlines will make a difference depends on how the policy is implemented.”
The limited numbers from Twitter make it less consequential for Indian Express, leading to the observed negligible difference. However, it did open up a new opportunity, Singh points out.
In the absence of a default headline, publishers can use the space as a showcase to tempt the users to click on the article and read through.Mukesh Singh, head, revenue- digital, Indian Express
“The headline on X works like a hook. Sometimes it’s obvious as to what the story is all about. But in the absence of a default headline, publishers can use the space as a showcase to tempt the users to click on the article and read through. That can help in improving engagement of the article.”
Can it drum up more monetisation avenues?
The Quint’s Mahajan points out that Twitter's impact on website traffic has been limited, even without headlines. The correlation between headline removal and traffic fluctuations is yet to be deciphered. “As platforms prioritise individual, creator-led content, blurring the lines between influencers and journalists, the broader impact on traffic and disinformation is minor.”
However, Twitter has long been a social platform where users from diverse communities engage in debates and discussions over pertinent and trending topics of interest. With the platform now restoring the ability to properly contextualise the content that publishers put out, can it drum up more monetisation avenues for digital publishers?
Twitter can become a crucial tool for publishers to drive premiums as it gives users the ability to “window shop” before subscribing.Sajal Gupta, CEO, Kiaos marketing
According to Sajal Gupta, CEO, Kiaos Marketing, X's value lies not in the numbers, but in the quality of interactions that it generates. With more digital publishers focusing on introducing paywalls, that is, a subscription-based model for selective content, they can leverage the quality engagement that Twitter has the potential to drive.
“As the prominence of paywall-led monetisation for digital publishers increases, Twitter can become a crucial tool for publishers to drive this mode of revenue as it gives users the ability to “window shop” before subscribing. The return of headlines on the platform holds promise, potentially driving paywall monetisation by showcasing quality content."
While it may not be a game-changer, it does provide a balanced approach for revenue diversification.Pankaj Sharma, CEO and director, MGID India
Pankaj Sharma, CEO and director, MGID India, believes the impact on revenue might not be significant, likely a mere one or two percent. “Advertisers are often hesitant to invest in news platforms. However, the potential for a paywall-driven monetisation model opens up opportunities for publishers to generate revenue within Twitter. While it may not be a game-changer, it does provide a balanced approach for revenue diversification for news publishers."